All You Need to Know About Spinal Instability

Dec 20, 2022

Spinal InstabilityMost people understand that the spine is one of the most important parts of the human body. You depend on your spine for stability, functionality, and movement, no matter whether you are awake or asleep. However, an issue with your spine can result in some health concerns or other issues. Certain injuries or health conditions can even lead to structural changes in the spine, cause abnormal movements, or impact load-bearing postures. One potential cause of spine issues is known as spinal instability. If you have spinal instability, you may not be able to go about your daily routines or participate in activities you enjoy. You will need to receive quality, comprehensive treatment from a spine doctor near you. Spine doctors can provide you with an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan to address your specific concerns. Here’s all you need to know about spinal instability.

Types of Spinal Instability

In general, spinal instability refers to when the spine is unable to maintain its normal alignment and movements. This can result in pain, discomfort, and difficulty completing certain movements or tasks. Spinal instability can be caused by a variety of factors, including injury or trauma, degenerative diseases, and congenital diseases. These are five types of spinal instability.

Dynamic Instability

Dynamic instability is a type of spinal instability that occurs when the spine is unable to maintain its normal alignment and movement during common movements and activities, like bending or walking.

Static Instability

Static instability can occur when the spine cannot maintain its normal alignment when the body is at rest.

Translational Instability

Translational instability is a type of spinal instability that occurs when one segment of the spine moves out of position in relation to the other segments of the spine.

Rotational Instability

Rotational instability can occur when one segment of the spine rotates excessively or too far, especially in relation to the adjacent spinal segments.

Sagittal Plane Instability

Sagittal plane instability is a type of spinal instability that typically impacts the lumbar spine, or the lower back, along the sagittal plane, which runs from front to back.

Where Spinal Instability Can Occur

Where Spinal Instability Can OccurSpinal instability can occur anywhere along the spinal column, though it is typically most common in the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) regions. The cervical spine and lumbar spine are at greater risk for spinal instability because these segments of the spine bear most of the body’s weight and are subject to the most movement and stress. These are the four main segments of the spine and how spinal instability can impact them:

Cervical Spine

The cervical spine includes the first seven bones of the spine, known as the C1-C7 vertebrae. These vertebrae are also separated from one another by spinal discs, which provide shock absorption and support to the spine. The cervical spine supports the head and movements like turning your head from side to side or up and down. One of the main symptoms of a cervical spine issue is neck pain. This pain can also affect the head, jaw, shoulders, and arms.

Thoracic Spine

The thoracic spine is located in the upper and middle part of the back and is made up of twelve vertebrae. The vertebrae of the thoracic spine are numbered T1-T12 and also correlate with various nerves in that section of the spinal cord that send signals from the brain to muscles and other soft tissues in the area. The thoracic spine is also attached to the rib cage. Pain in the thoracic spine can occur anywhere along the mid-back and can impact your shoulders and posture.

Lumbar Spine

The lumbar spine is in the lower back and includes five vertebrae known as L1-L5. The vertebrae in the lumbar spine are larger and thicker than other bones in the spine as they provide stability for your back and spinal column. In fact, the lumbar spine bears most of the body’s weight. The lumbar spine also functions as the point of attachment for many muscles and ligaments in the back. Along with other types of spine conditions, lower back pain is one of the main symptoms and can be sharp and stabbing or dull and achy.

Sacral Spine

The sacrum refers to five vertebrae fused together to make up the sacral spine at the base of your spine. The sacrum is a flat, triangle-shaped bone located between the hip bones and just underneath the last vertebrae of the lumbar spine. Your tailbone, also known as the coccyx, is located just below the sacrum. Sacral spine issues can cause pain in your low back, buttocks, or hips and can impact certain organs like the bowel or bladder and your lower limbs.

Cervical Spine Instability

Spinal instability in the cervical spine can cause neck pain and make it difficult to turn your head. Here are the common symptoms of cervical spine instability and their potential causes.

Symptoms of Cervical Spinal Instability

In addition to neck pain and difficulty moving the neck, cervical spine instability can also cause stiffness and tension in your neck and shoulders. Other symptoms can include pain, tingling, and numbness that radiates into the arms, hands, or fingers. You may also experience weakness in these upper extremities that can make tasks that require fine motor skills more difficult, like writing or tying your shoelaces. Cervical spine instability can also result in dizziness or balance issues and vision changes. Some people with cervical spine instability also report headaches located at the base of the skull or headaches that radiate into other areas of the head.

Cervical Spinal Instability Causes

Several factors can contribute to the development of spinal instability in the neck. A traumatic injury, such as a car accident or fall, can cause the spine to become unstable. Degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis can cause the spinal joints and spinal discs to degenerate over time, leading to instability. Some people can be born with spinal abnormalities, known as congenital conditions, that can cause instability. A previous spinal injury or spinal surgery can also lead to the development of instability. In many cases, a combination of factors can cause cervical spinal instability, and the specific cause will vary from person to person.

Lumbar Spine Instability

Lumbar spine instability can impact your lower back and make everyday movements and activities uncomfortable or difficult to complete. Here are the potential symptoms and causes of spinal instability in the lumbar spine:

Symptoms of Lumbar Spinal Instability

Lower back pain caused by lumbar spinal instability can range from mild to severe and may be constant or occur intermittently. Other symptoms may include stiffness or difficulty moving your lower back. This may make it difficult to bend or twist your back. Lumbar spine instability can also cause leg pain, along with numbness or tingling in the legs, feet, or toes. This type of condition can also result in weakness in the legs, feet, or toes, making it difficult to walk or stand for long periods of time. Lumbar spinal instability can also make it difficult to stand up straight, resulting in poor posture accompanied by low back pain. Sometimes, lumbar spinal instability can result in difficulty with bowel or bladder control because of pressure on the nerves that control these functions.

Lumbar Spinal Instability Causes

Trauma to the lower back, like a car accident injury or slip and fall injury, can cause the spine to become unstable. Other factors that can result in the development of spinal instability in the lumbar spine include degenerative disc diseases and congenital conditions. Degenerative disc diseases like osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis can cause damage to tissues and spinal discs that support the vertebrae, leading to instability. Someone can also be born with a spinal abnormality that primarily impacts the lumbar spine. In some cases, you could have had a previous spinal surgery that was not successful, which can lead to the development of instability. Excess weight gain or obesity can also put additional strain on the spine, especially the lower back.

Treatment Options for Spinal Instability

Treatment Options for Spinal InstabilityThe treatment options for spinal instability will depend on the specific cause of the instability and the location and severity of your symptoms. Both non-surgical and surgical options are available to treat spinal instability. Your spine doctor will diagnose the type and cause of your spine instability to determine the best course of treatment for you. Here are some examples of what treatment can look like for spinal instability.

Non-Surgical vs. Surgical Treatments

In most cases, your spine doctor will utilize non-surgical treatment options before resorting to surgery. One of the most common reasons for starting with non-surgical treatments is to avoid any unnecessary procedures. Surgery can put additional stress on your body and typically comes with a significant recovery and rehabilitation period. With non-surgical treatments, you can work with your spine doctor to address the cause of your instability and the severity of your symptoms with natural or minimally invasive options first. If non-surgical treatments do not or cannot address your specific type of spinal instability, then your spine doctor may talk to you about your options for spine surgery.

Pain Management

One of the most important aspects of treating your spinal instability is managing your pain. This can include over-the-counter medications to help with pain and inflammation in the area. Your spine doctor may also recommend injections or prescription medications depending on the type of spinal instability you experience. Other therapies can help manage pain and discomfort, including chiropractic care, physical therapy, and therapeutic massage.


Wearing a brace can provide support to the spine and prevent further instability. Your spine doctor may recommend bracing after a car accident or injury to the spine to help support the area while it heals. Bracing can also help properly distribute the body’s weight so that parts of the spine are not overloaded with too much load bearing while healing and recovering from an injury or health condition.

Physical Therapy

A physical therapist will provide you with a personalized plan of care to help relieve your symptoms and address your spinal instability. Physical therapy can help strengthen muscles that surround the spine to help offer better support to the area. You can also work with a physical therapist to improve your flexibility, which can also help to stabilize the spine. Physical therapy allows you to take an active role in your recovery and rehabilitation.

Spine Surgery

If non-surgical methods are not successful in relieving your symptoms, then your spine doctor may consider surgical options. This could include fusion surgery, which involves fusing two or more vertebrae together in order to stabilize the spine. Another type of spine surgery is called decompression surgery, which involves removing any material that may be pressing on the nerves in the spine to help relieve pain and improve function. Stabilization surgery involves using hardware like screws or rods to stabilize the spine and prevent further spinal instability.

Recovering from Spinal Instability

Recovering from spinal instability can take time and may involve a combination of non-surgical and surgical treatments. It is important to follow the treatment plan recommended by your spine doctor and medical team. Your treatment plan may include physical therapy, medications, or surgery, and it is important to follow the plan as directed to promote healing and alleviate symptoms. Getting plenty of rest is important for the body to heal. Practicing good posture can also help alleviate stress on the spine and promote healing. Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding activities that may strain the spine can also promote healing while you recover from spinal instability.

When to Visit a Spine Doctor

If you experience any symptoms of spinal instability, such as neck or back pain, stiffness, or difficulty moving the spine, you want to speak with a spine doctor as soon as possible. At AICA Orthopedics, our team of spine doctors works alongside orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, physical therapists, and chiropractors to address spinal instability and a variety of other health conditions. Visit AICA Orthopedics in Tucker to get started with a trusted spine doctor today and learn how you can experience lasting relief from your back pain.


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